Thursday, December 31, 2009

At the End of the Year

Perspective is everything. This year and this decade have brought many challenges to us. I have been fortunate. The "aughts" have been the best decade of my life. This past year has brought good health, artistic fruition, and deeper relationships.  But it hasn't always been this way, and it won't always be this way. Sometimes I'll feel like the cat out on the edge of the antenna all alone. Other times, I'll have the perspective to see that the cat is not all alone, the antenna is not without support, and the light is not as thin as I think.

I spent all day on Saturday re-reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I'm teaching it next semester. My late friend Jeffrey adored Capote, and for moments of the afternoon, it was like we were still sitting together drinking tea and talking about literature. I went to his website, which I do from time to time, only to find that it has returned to the realm of Available Domain names. He's still flourishing on Facebook, though, and every month or so Facebook urges me to 'reconnect' with him. Once in awhile I wonder how many e-mails are unread in his in-box, how many messages unheard on his voice mail.

I am leaving tomorrow for Massachusetts to teach at Kripalu. I am looking forward to heated floors, watching winter from indoors, and working with new students. I am also tired, so the trip will give me an opportunity to work with maintaining balance and stability.

This year crashed me into middle age, and I notice more spots decorating my hands, more lines under my eyes, and more cricks in my joints. I also notice more calmness and acceptance, less striving and struggling, more ease and softness. I stretch and move and shake. I sleep deeper. I have always been hyper aware of the impermanence of life. I have felt it more this year. I have watched friends and family struggle with illness and death. I have surrendered my hopes of shopping in the junior department ever again, and I don't find anyone in the cast of Twilight attractive. Such boys! I think. Sigh. Last night we watched Say Anything. I fell in love with John Cusack in 1989 with that movie. It held up OK, but wow, he looked so young. Such boys! Sigh.

This poem below was written by Jeffrey in 2008, a few months before he died. For those of you not from around these parts, Jerome is an old mining ghost town in Arizona. It's become somewhat of an artist's colony now.

::: Jerome, AZ :::

Slowly, stealthily, buildings slink away from their foundations.
Jerome's streets are cracked and crumbled lengths as if great, concrete serpents had
shed old skins
as they crept
up and down the mountainsides.

Buildings stand close together, like elderly friends
offering the promise of support,
which they could never actually provide.
Webs of weakness lattice entire walls
shifting with the light, from tiny plaster faults to grand lace designs.

Entire buildings have moved throughout the years
giving an all too literal interpretation to the phrase,
“There goes the neighborhood”.

Houses tilt toward cliffs and tease us
into imagining their futures as rubble.
Tourists, from places thought of as permanent, come
to see this curious town.

Of course, if they had the time
they could simply wait for Jerome
to go wandering and perhaps
even come to them.

- Jeffrey Hartgraves

There is a grace which comes from being who you are where you are, and a tension that comes from resisting it. In 2010, I wish you profound grace.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Many Lives of Meow

After a family dinner last night, I went to the Raven to have another glass of wine, listen to blues music, and talk to my ghosts. I had a dozen pictures with me that our family friends had brought from North Carolina. Pictures of me with large circular glasses. Pictures of my sister when her bones still poked through her clothing. Halloween pictures, my father even then a ghost in the background between my sister and me. Pictures of my mother with long hair, turned up at the ends, wearing cat's eye glasses. My beloved first cat, Charley.

The friends who joined us for dinner have known my sister and me since our births. They carried with them the easy conversation that comes from longevity and tradition. Their Southern accents hit a primal center in me. We would fall asleep to the sounds of Mom and Dad talking with these two people. They are part of the soundtrack of home.

It had been many years since I had seen them. Only one person lives in Arizona who has known me since I was born. Only one. Only two knew me before high school. There is a comfort among people who watched you learn to walk, spell, ride a bike. But even more than that, there is a comfort among people who knew you in the beginning. Perhaps this is why Arizona can never be home. That Southern question, "Who are your people?" has no answer here for me under this big sky.

When people know who you used to be, they can help illuminate who you are. I am not who I was when I lived in North Carolina. I am not who I was twenty years ago. Ten years ago. I have shouted and screamed and attacked everything I felt was unjust, only to find myself more angry, more alone, and more isolated. I wrote venomous plays that preached to the choir, but made no attempt to reach anyone else. My writing stalled as I stalled, underneath armor I meticulously built. I wrote in my diary in high school: If I didn't know you before we moved, I'll never fully let you in. I lived by this for decades, until it became exhausting and unhealthy to divide everyone into two camps. Until I realized the certainty of being unable to change anyone or anything except myself.

All I could do was soften. All I could to was release the armor, stop the ranting, the categorizing, the venom. Only when I stopped using my writing as a vehicle for an agenda did my writing begin to find its way into the world. Only when I stopped meeting everyone with steel did I find the ability to move. When I turned my exploration inward rather than outward, my writing expanded. When I changed the answer to the question "What am I writing this for" from to tear down X to to connect with X, I have found no shortage of stories, essays, and books.

The friends we had dinner with knew me best when I was angriest. I once thought the only fuel for an artist was anger. I couldn't write, I thought, without it. But it turned out, I couldn't write with it. It was eating my heart, and once it finished chewing, what would be left? Fire, I have learned, comes from many places besides anger. It doesn't have to be an uncontrolled blaze that destroys indiscriminantly. It can be consciously cultivated as part of our internal alchemy. It can be a consistent bubbling in the belly that helps us direct our next steps. Fire, uncontrolled, will also destroy the person who set the fire.

I love these people who came to visit. I loved talking with them and listening to them and watching the ghosts of who I used to be circling around the table. This is exactly what home is to me: The place where all our ghosts can gather without fear of exorcism. The place where all the lives of all of us can sit down, have a meal, and then disappear into the ring around the moon. And last night was the first time I have ever felt home here in the desert.

What a beautiful Thanksgiving.

I took digital pictures of a few of the photos they brought:

This is me and Charley at the side door of our house, circa 1980


This is my sister, Melanie (the blonde) and I in 1973.


Halloween, circa 1978-9. Dad is in the center. 
The flash above his head was from the original photo. 
Makes the picture a bit more ghosty! 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Questions for self-evaluation of work

Here is the handout I give my advanced students for revising. This is geared toward fiction, but I use a similar version for creative non-fiction classes. I thought this might be beneficial to some of you. Please feel free to use it in your own classes and on your own work.


View your own work with the same level of trust, respect, and compassion as you would view the work of another student. One of the most important skills you can learn as a writer is the ability to look at your work with detachment and clarity. The workshop process -- both of your own work and the work of other students -- is the key to learning these skills. Remember that this, like writing, is a process. You will get better over time.

Writing is a process. The beginning drafts (notice the plural) show the many directions a piece can go in. As you proceed through the re-vision-ing process, you let go of things that no longer stick. Recognize that you needed everything in the beginning to get to the heart of the piece. Some pieces are simply teaching tools for you. Some are stepping stones. And every once in awhile, you get one with teeth. It takes all the stepping stones to find the treasure. The sooner you can be OK with that, the easier your path as a writer will be. Trust me on that.

1) Reread the piece objectively. Read slowly and carefully. Reread it without a pen to mark anything up BEFORE answering the questions.

2) What is the driving question? It's OK if you don't have one yet. That's usually the case for beginning drafts. Write down a list of possible driving questions. You might ask yourself -- what does this story want? Early drafts are generally filled with the possibility of many driving questions. It's up to you to determine which one you want to run with.

3) What does the protagonist want? What is the yearning/desire within the context of the text? (This is not the same as the driving question, though it is often related.) Again, it's OK if you don't know this yet. It's just part of what needs to be uncovered in the piece.

4) What is in the way of the protagonist achieving what s/he wants? How can you make the obstacles more challenging?

5) What is the central conflict? If you can't find it, make some notes around what it could be as you look toward revision.

6) Is there a change or a movement toward a change in the character's arc? If not, examine where this could occur.

7) Read just the dialogue aloud. How does it sound in your mouth? Do you stumble anywhere? Is the dialogue serving multiple purposes within the story?

8) Take a highlighter and highlight parts of your story that are SUMMARY (telling). Take a look at the ratio of scenes to summary. Are you showing what you should be showing? Telling what you should be telling? Are you showing the key moments of change? Does the piece have a good balance? (There's no formula for this.)

9) Does the story have adequate sensory detail? (Are all five senses represented somewhere, somehow?) Where can you add more specific detail?

10) Do the details you have included add something to the story, or are they generic details (height/weight, etc) Make each detail you choose to include unique to the character or setting.

11) Examine the chronology and structure. Are there unexplained gaps in time? Do we have a clear place and time?

12) Are there characters introduced without explanation? Do all the characters included in the piece have a significant role? What would the piece lose if a character were removed?

13) Are there extraneous scenes that provide backstory that is not needed to understand the focus of the exploration of the story?

14) Is this piece a story yet? (Does it have a clear protagonist, a driving question, a conflict, a climax, a resolution of some sort?) Or, is it an event or a series of events? If it is the latter, what do you need to do to ensure that you have a story?

15) What POV are you using? Are you consistent with your choice throughout the story? What is gained by your POV choice? What is lost? Consider what would happen if you changed the POV.

16) What is still interesting to you about the story? Another way to think about this is where is the energy? The answer to this question will help you find a doorway into your next draft.

Suggested Next Steps:

1) Make a list of scenes you can include. Start the prewriting process.

2) Journal for awhile around your potential driving questions. See what you discover. Don't predetermine where you should go or what you should do. FOLLOW the writing. Don't direct it.

3) Ask your protagonist what s/he wants. Be open to the answer being different from what you think it is.

4) Don't be attached to what you have already written. Don't be afraid to let go of what you no longer need. You're not 'fixing' what's currently on the page. You're finding the next level of evolution in the story. The beginning is only the beginning. Nothing more and nothing less.

5) When you find your driving question, what scenes need to occur to meet the needs of the driving question?

The Lonesome Road of Revision

'Tis the season for revisions. I just got all my edits back from Shambhala. My students are in the throes of revising their work. I adore revision, but most of the time, my classes do not. Yesterday, in my advanced fiction class, we did an in-class self-evaluation on their current revisions. (Yes, these revisions weren't really the final ones... psych!)  After about an hour, we had a chat. I thought the conversation might be helpful for some of you. 

Two primary questions came up.

How do you know when you're done?

This is as obscure as how do you know when you're in love (or out of love!) The answer is different for different people and different circumstances.  You may be noticing that the longer you study writing the fewer "answers" there are to anything. You're not imagining it. To commit to the life of a writer, you have to be able to look at yourself with honesty and objectivity. You have to be able to discern when YOU'RE bored compared to when the story has run its course. No one can know that for you. You have to be vigilant with yourself so that you don't fall into patterns of laziness or "good enough". This is hard. I'll never tell you it isn't. That's why people take classes, find writer's groups, stay in school, etc -- we seem to need other people to help us keep growing.

Some stories are just learning tools. They won't blossom into anything, no matter how much you want it. Some stories do arrive in better shape than others (but I assure you, the more you practice, the better chance you have of this occurring). Each draft teaches craft. Each draft increases the level of sophistication of your thinking about a work.

You might think about this in terms of a story's question(s). When the story has exhausted its questions for you, it's time to shape it and start sending it out. As long as there are still significant questions for you, it's likely still time to work on it.

Writing takes time. The semester format is a false one. All you can do in a semester is stick your toe in. If any of you go on to graduate school, you'll spend most of your two years rewriting the same book. This isn't so much to get a great book, as much as it's to instill the length, depth, and breadth of a true revision process into the student. It's to teach the level of thinking and detachment required to really shape and sculpt a piece of writing. It takes a long time.

Only you can determine what is arrogance and laziness (it's good enough, it's better than X's, it's just fine, etc) and what is the end of the story's arc. In my experience, it's rare for a story to work in under a year. My books take 3-5 years apiece. And I work on them A LOT.

How do you keep showing up?

If I had the answer to this, I'd be rich. I just know that you show up if it matters to you, and you don't show up if it doesn't, and you're not a good person or a bad person regardless of which choice you make. Writer's block comes from you, not from the writing, so examine what might be going on inside yourself that is keeping you from showing up for the work. The answer is always there. Then, you can determine if it really is the right thing to do not to show up (sometimes life really does get in the way), or if you can kick yourself in the butt, laugh, and start again.

You will ask these questions your whole writing life. Every time you ask, the answer will change. Practice not attaching to needing to know everything. Practice listening with an open heart to the story, rather than to the director in your mind. Follow one word as it leads to the next. You aren't creating the path. You're following it. When that mindset shifts, a lot of opening can occur for people. 

Revising is where the fun is. It's where you get to peel away what isn't your story. It's where you get to test out your knowledge of craft. It's where your curiosity gets to play and where your real reasons for writing the piece start to speak. Revising your work is not a sign of failure. It's proof of discipline, dedication, and perseverance, qualities without which you will not be a writer. It's proof of your stamina and courage, and above all else, it's proof that you respect your art.  

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Writing Warrior

The Way of the Writing Warrior

If true freedom is going to survive within you, you have to be willing to fight for it. You have to have a sword in each hand at all times. One sword is for your own mind and the other sword is for everyone else's mind. You must be ready to use them. Anyone who wants to be truly free must be willing to stand alone in the truth.
-    Andrew Cohen

The beginning always starts off easy. “I want to write a book,” you say. So, maybe you take a class or two. Maybe you buy a book on writing. Maybe you join a critique group. In the beginning, you are filled with possibilities, burning with potential and promise. In the beginning, you really believe that in one semester you can learn all there is to learn about writing and be on your way to the Great American Novel. And then the beginning, with its sweet kisses and daily flower deliveries, turns into the middle. What was once svelte and flexible and able to party until 3 am and still go to work the next day, turns into the same old stories, the same old morning routine, the same old conversation over and over and over.
“This is no longer love!” you exclaim, and toss your idea, once burning with fire and promise, onto the pyre of self-loathing and vow to start anew with something fresher, more exciting, more flexible and inspiring than ever before. These new kisses are even sweeter, the flowers ever more fragrant. This is the one. And then this beginning becomes a middle. And this middle has a spare tire around its belly. And this middle lost its job. And this middle’s eyesight is failing. What to do? This one was the one! Obviously, you don’t know how to pick ‘em. After all, how could something so right turn out so wrong? Next time you’ll pick one even younger. Stronger. With a faster car.
Anyone can fall in love. Not just anyone can stay in love.
The path of the writing warrior is about staying in love. The path of the writing warrior is about ruthless self-study. It is about looking in the mirror and noticing, without judgment, what you see. It is also about recognizing what you don’t see. It is about accepting that you cannot see it all. It is acknowledging that you see the world through lenses, and acknowledging that each lens provides a distortion. It is having the courage to remove the lenses as you become aware of them. It is having the courage to know when you still need a lens. It is standing back and watching, with more than a little smile, the chatter of your mind.
A writing warrior stands steady in the center of his work, not reaching too far into the past or too far into the present. He is rooted to the earth and his spine is reaching toward heaven. She identifies and acknowledges the distractions and illusions in her path, and with compassion and clarity, strikes them down. She is aware of her patterns and tendencies to get in her own way, and she can laugh at herself, openly and with wide lips. He knows his time on earth is finite and wants to live it fully. He knows he has essays to write, stories to share, poems to create, and he knows it is his responsibility to write them. She knows that writing is sacred, that it carries great power, and that it takes work. She knows that though the stories and poems appear as gifts, they require her diligence, her patience, and her discipline to realize their full potential. He must be alert. She must be faithful.
The writing warrior’s pen is a sword used both to slice away the illusions of her own mind and the illusions of the world around her. The writing warrior does not pick up the pen lightly. He respects its power, its magic, and its teachings. He knows it carries responsibilities. She steps up to the page, the battlefield of the morning, bows to the pen, the page, and to herself. She is ready to cut away what does not serve. He is ready to carve out a new landscape. The pen is also ready, and bows to the warrior, offering its ink as a sacred covenant.
Welcome to the path. We have been waiting for you.

The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice 
Available Summer 2010 from Shambhala Publications

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Conviction of Things Not Seen

A few weeks ago, Keith and I went to see Hector Olivera at the performance hall on campus. We went because there weren't enough tickets sold so the school was offering two for one tickets to faculty. I had never heard of Hector Olivera. I just knew I was starved for something different. How many times in one semester can we go to Target? To Barnes and Noble? To Ross? To Papa's Pizza?

I pretended we were going to the symphony in San Francisco and put on black velvet and crazy-high heels. I wore a pashmina wrap, tried to pretend we arrived on the train instead of the Subaru, tried to pretend we could walk, after the show, to any number of bistros and cafes for an after-show drink and dessert (um, Denny's anyone?). I am a writer. I have great imagination.

Hector Olivera is an Argentinian pipe organist. I won't pretend to know anything about music or about the pipe organ. I made it through a sketchy Fur Elise on the piano when I was a child, but that's the extend of my musical expertise. But without understanding music, I love it. Live music makes me cry just about every time, any kind.  Live performances, even the not-so-great ones, take my breath away.

We arrived about ten minutes early. There were only a couple of hundred people there. We were the "young 'uns". Hector came out in his tuxedo, bowed, and began to play.

In between arrangements, he spun around and talked to us as if he were at Carnegie Hall instead of the Yavapai College Performance Hall. He told us of playing the funeral mass for Evita in Argentina when he was seven. He tried to make cowboy jokes. He has been touring internationally for decades. He has designed organs. And he is in love with late nineteenth and early twentieth century western United States history. He'd spent the afternoon at Sharlot Hall Museum, a local museum honoring Prescott's early settlers. He was enthralled and did a set of pieces for us focused on spaghetti westerns. He made the organ go "clop clop" to imitate the horses' hooves. He filled the room with an orchestra.

And, (here's where I fell in love) he had a friend named Harry. Harry is a stuffed green German Lutheran frog who sits on his organ and carries on conversations with him and the audience.

"He plays puppets!" I said to Keith, knowing at that very moment that Hector was a soul mate and a true artist. "Only a real artist would admit to playing puppets publicly."

But it got better than puppets. After the intermission, he introduced all the members of his orchestra. He nodded to invisible people on both sides of the organ. He had names for them. Personalities. Foibles. (The trumpet player drank too much. The violinist was always late.) He acknowledged all sections of his orchestra, then sat down to play, nodding to each invisible player at the appropriate time to enter the composition.

When he stood to bow, he commented on how silly he was. How he appreciated our patience while an old man played with his imaginary friends. But then, after the laughter, he said, "You are even more silly than me if you think I don't believe they are there."

And there you have it. That's what makes an artist -- a writer, a dancer, a painter, a musician, a singer, a sculptor. He believes in what and who he cannot see. He believes in these things enough to share them with a group of strangers in a small town in the mountains of Arizona. He believes in play enough to take his German frog Harry on the road with him across the world.

As writers, this play emerges as your characters. You are not making them up from nowhere. You are entering the spaces where they live. You must believe they are there. Only then, will they talk to you. It helps if you smile and open your arms a little, too.

I am in love with Hector Olivera, and I am sure that the world is a better place because he embodies his music, his not-so-imaginary orchestra, and his German frog Harry.

Hector and Harry working on the organ.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Faculty Development Day! Hooray!

Warning: Snarky Rant Full of Judgment and Generalizations Forthcoming.

Alright. I am basically a good employee. I am a dedicated teacher. I show up when I'm supposed to. I get papers returned quickly. I am generally friendly to everyone. And, I do love my job. Until days like today, which actually have nothing to do with my job.

Every few months or so it seems like people (who said people are and where they live remains a mystery) feel we need a day just to be collegial. Just to check in with each other. I know you know these people -- they're the Team Builders. The ones who think pitting the science faculty against the liberal arts faculty in a ropes course helps build trust. The ones who think it's fun to play get to know you games and arrange for holiday gift exchanges.  These Team Builders are administrative staff.  Every place I've ever worked has these people. They are nice people. But oh, how they love to group.  Everything can apparently be done better if there's a group, a committee, or -- I'm all a-quiver -- a pot luck luncheon to discuss such absurd issues as grade inflation (yes, we're all doing it apparently. No more academic integrity. We just pass 'em all through), textbook costs (can we really do anything about that?), whether or not we should keep the dorms, and technological literacy (no, Virgina, just because they can reach level 5 on Grand Theft Auto does NOT mean they can attach a file properly).

I'll concede that the world is probably a better place because there are Team Builders, but I am not one of them and I don't want to play in their reindeer games.  Faculty, generally, are not groupers. We work in academia because no one else will have us. Because we won't chant "Yay Corporate Employer X" or take the battle over sales numbers in women's accessories seriously. We're here because we don't play all that well with others.  Our loyalty is to our field and to our students. I am a teacher. I don't want to be an administrator. I am not cut out for it. I am either a loner or a dictator. It's better for all if I'm left alone.

It's not just me.

Standing in line for the coffee at 8:30 this morning, one after the other of us murmured, "What a waste of time."

"I have mid terms to grade."

"I need to prep."

"I could be sleeping."

But here we are, because in these "trying economic times" we are all relatively happy to have work.

Today I learned these things about my job (via PowerPoint):

- The Original Sin in Academia: Question Everything, but Do We Question Our Own Establishment?
- The Pony Express went out of Business Because the Horses Weren't Fast Enough (I'm actually not making this up)
- We Have Inefficient Classroom Usage Between 8 am and 9:30.
- We Waste 15-20 minutes per Classroom Period Taking Attendance; Therefore When The Swine Flu Outbreak Hits and We Have to Close Campuses, We Can Just Give Students A Final Grade at 85% Completion Because We (did I mention) Waste 15- 20 minutes per Class Period.
- We Do Not Need to Teach Psychology to Nursing Students
- We Need to Focus on Job Preparation
- Why Do We Have Liberal Arts at All? The Education Model We Are Using is From Ancient Greece. They Are Dead.
- We Are Our Own Worst Albatross
- Private Institutions Are Making Money. We Are Not.
- We Should Offer Baccalaureate Degrees.
- We Need To Save Money.
- Each Student Costs the College $8000. Why Is That Not Enough For Them To Transfer To a 4-year Institution?
- Traditional Education is a Failed Paradigm. Directed, Skills Based Programs Like Sustainability, Public Service, Hospitality Management, and Nursing Are Our Future.
- Did I Mention the Pony Express Went out of Business Because The Horses Couldn't Run Fast Enough?

Oh, there's so much more, if that wasn't clear and uplifting enough. With each rambling run-on, I watched the faculty in front of me and around me cringe. The old-timers took it all with a grain of salt. "It's been the same rhetoric since 1994 when I got here," one of them told me. The brand new hires got really angry and started challenging the administration. We wrote notes to each other on the tables, sucked in our breaths, tried to let it roll off our backs. Tried, some of us maybe more successfully than others, to let the rhetoric just bounce off.

I get that we don't have any money. I get that there aren't any jobs. But I cannot reconcile any of that with a devaluation and deprofessionalization of teaching. I believe in the education of the whole human. I believe in a liberal arts education. I believe that understanding more about who we are and what we believe may be the only thing that prevents us from killing each other. I believe that we are better humans by reading, by writing, by painting, dancing, creating and listening to music. To try to make education even more narrow seems like it will create a world I want no part of. To be striving to create a person with skill but without soul seems a foolish and short-sighted goal.

This semester I've had several problems with fundamentalist students and the readings we've done in class. They've dropped. I don't have the energy to fight. I teach my classes. I go home. I avoid situations where I might have to get involved in campus politics. I cannot try to change minds. I can only open doors. Lead the horse to water as they say. (Hey, maybe if the Pony Express horses had drunk the water they could have run faster...)

I am glad there are administrators who get money for us and keep us paid and happy with indoor plumbing. Every school needs them, and we have a good one. But I am not OK with being told that what I do does not matter. No one gets into teaching for the money. We love our subject and we love our students. Mr. Administrator, don't you dare try to make critical thinking obsolete. Don't you dare devalue the arts. As William Carlos Williams wrote, "It is difficult to get the news from poems. Yet men die every day for lack of what is found there." It is not always, Mr. Administrator, about money.

I dare you, Mr. Administrator. Spend one week in the classroom. Listen to the students. They are not commodities. They are not dollars. They are not excel spreadsheet numbers. They are human beings. Our job as an educational institution is to help them be deeper, broader, richer human beings. And no, you can't measure that outcome (so I know, it's not valuable. I read that memo). And no, you don't always know at the time if you made a difference at all. But we keep showing up because we believe in something bigger than ourselves. We believe in our collective histories -- at its most brilliant and its basest. We believe that the more a mind can open, the softer we can become. We believe this when the world tells us it, and we, are irrelevant. We believe this when it seems no one hears or cares. We believe this because somewhere in the back of our hearts lives that teacher who first put on Beethoven for us, or who first read us Dr. Seuss, or who first showed us how the human heart works, or opened up a geode to its full sparkle.

It may be inefficient to believe in these things now. It may even be irrelevant. I may already be irrelevant. But I do hear my students. And I do love them. I show up every day for them with all that I have. And I do love stories and language more than anything else in the world.

You will not take this away, Mr. Administrator. There may no longer be a Pony Express, but there are still horses.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?

How do you know if you've actually done any work? You go to classes. You do the practices. You change your eating habits. You keep peeling back the layers that have, you thought, kept you safe. You keep showing up even when you don't want to, but you still don't know if your central beliefs about yourself and the way you navigate the world can fundamentally change.

How can you tell?

When every trigger you have gets pushed in a short period of time and you find that your responses are not the responses of the past. And, you find that you can't even really access those past responses. There's this whisper of a whisper, "Shouldn't I be feeling contraction? Shouldn't I be undone?" But the whisper has no place to stand, so it soon enough blows away. You are somehow no longer making assumptions about the present moment based on past experience. WTF? How did that happen?

We all have tendencies and patterns. My dad wrote to me, in my 11th birthday letter, that I resisted change more than anyone he'd ever known. That says something about an 11 year old! But it was a very perceptive observation, and perhaps a belief about myself that I have solidified, in part because it has truth to it, in part because it was something dad saw in me and so by holding on to it I was holding on to him, and in part because I didn't think there were options.

I have worked for most of my adult life on issues of attachment and aversion.  Generally speaking, attachments arise from our previous experiences of pleasure and happiness. Aversions emerge from previous experiences of pain and suffering. Over time, our sense of self-identity is largely formed by a long list of such likes and dislikes. We have a tendency to define ourselves as a collection of our previous emotional experiences. For me, these issues have surfaced most around times of change -- when a relationship ends, when someone dies, when others around me are changing and I don't want them to, when I am afraid of moving away from what no longer serves me.

For years I've had this line posted above my desk in my office:

Unconditional acceptance of whatever is arising in the present moment is absolute freedom.

I posted it so I would see it every day because I know my tendency is to resist whatever is arising. My tendency is to attach to a particular moment that rocked and hold on to it until it's dead. My tendency is to be sticky. To root myself so deeply I can't move. To solidify inside and outside.

When I figured these things out about myself, I thought that was a pretty big piece of work. I thought at least I will have greater awareness when I'm living my life. Now that I know I do this, at least I can not project my own stuff onto other people. But I didn't really think I could actually cellularly shift those things. I thought my job was to work with them because they would always be there (see the false assumption I had that there is permanence?)

In the past few weeks, I've been hit with everything that would have previously unmoored me. It started when Patrick Swayze died and I spent a few days crying for him and for dad. I could cry though, and go on with my day. It wasn't debilitating. It was cleansing. Then the following week was the one-year anniversary of my friend Jeffrey's death. In the past, I would have created a drama around that -- something along the lines of I'll never see him again. I'll never have another friend like him. I'll never see San Francisco the same way again. And on and on. I did experience sadness, but it welled up, moved, and was gone. I went to his Facebook page (one never really dies on-line) and left a note on his wall, along with many of his other friends.

I finished the final draft of The Writing Warrior and sent it to Shambhala a few days ago. This is the first book I've written that Jeffrey didn't read ahead of time. The first book that will not have his keen eye on the text. When a manuscript is finished, there is a period of silence. A space where there is nothing to do but wait for what is next. In the past, I would have attached to wanting the New Book NOW. I would have attached to how much I missed Jeffrey's input. How much I miss Jeffrey. But I didn't. I sent the book off and I am now waiting, both for the response from the editor and for the next book to start to speak.

But the biggest awareness of the internal changes occurred on Sunday at a workshop I attended. My fabulous friend Ciara attended as well. Ciara was on her way out of the state to a new life in Arkansas after the workshop. Cain was teaching the class, and he was on his way out of the country for a retreat. Ciara and I met in yoga and both studied a lot with Cain. We shared lots of growing together. We rubbed warm jade balls on our abdomens and coughed up ickiness. We poured salt water through our nostrils and did hours upon hours upon hours of shaking practice together.

I was already weepy by the time the class started. Cain had done a third cupping session with me on Thursday (see pictures below) and that one moved a ton of remaining sludge from a frozen shoulder I've been working on for several years. (If you're interested, the internet has info on Chinese cupping. I was going to attach a link to a video, but I thought it would be too much for my mom! And I have to admit, if I'd have seen the videos before I did it, I'm not sure I would have done it.)

After the cupping, I found myself spontaneously crying, leaking, essentially, from every possible place once the sludgy sticky water in me finally moved. I wept in a way that was more like washing off a muddy sidewalk than a weeping of attachment. I just let everything move. I also found freedom in my shoulders and back that I did not believe was possible. I felt like I had a whole new body, and that made more tears come. I just felt so grateful to be able to raise my arms above my head without contraction. Raising the arms seemed somehow connected to opening my lungs and my heart. Each time I did it, I felt freer, like I imagine a newborn must feel as she explores her new body. I didn't know how much blood was stuck in my shoulder until it moved.

In the past, if I knew I was going to an event that was going to involve saying good-bye to two people I cared about, I would have created a drama: This Is The Last Time The Three Of Us May Ever Practice Together. I would have decided that was a terrible thing, rather than a precious thing, and I would have held the as-yet-to-occur moment of good-bye as the Thing To Be Endured. I would have added my personal favorite storyline of abandonment. Of loss (based on a previous history of loss). I would have added the storyline of attachment and aversion -- I am Attached To My Practice Continuing As it Has Been and I am Adverse to Anything (ANYTHING) Being Different From How It Currently Is. I would have spent the entire class focused on the ending storyline, rather than being in the class with the present moment experience. But I couldn't do that. The class was not about the ending of the class. It was only about the class.

Ciara and I went to lunch at the Raven at the break. Previously, the storyline in my head for that lunch would be: This May Be My Last Lunch With Her. I would try to attach to her not leaving. I would try to avoid the end of the lunch. I would not, in any way, be able to be present and enjoy the lunch. But I didn't do that either. We simply had lunch.

Class ended and Ciara and I went to say good-bye to Cain. I was weepy because I've been weepy now for weeks. Previously, I would have snuck out of the class to avoid actually saying good-bye. I wouldn't have been clean and clear about it. But this time, I told both of them how they helped me. I told both of them I was grateful. And we all said good-bye.

And I didn't die. :-) And I did not get tossed away. I couldn't even attach to trying to get tossed away. There was only the moment. I couldn't create the contraction that I would have experienced before. I just felt what I felt when I felt it.

I tried to bring back the feelings I was expecting to feel -- the contraction I was sure would come. The inevitable (I assumed) triggering of grief onto and into grief. But I couldn't. I felt sad and I felt grateful and I felt happy, all at once and one after the other. 

I'd been given a chance to see if the internal patterns I have previously shaped my identity around could change. And they did. I don't know when they fell away, but they are gone. And there's a freedom in that I didn't know was possible. The bruises on my back and shoulders are fading, but the space inside them is still there.

Whaddya think, Dad? I walked right into change. I walked right into the ending of a phase of learning. I walked right into sadness and it didn't stick to me. On the other side of it is the next right thing.

Now, note to self: don't attach to this ....  OK, OK. It's already different. Oh! Different again! And I'm still standing! Who'd have thunk it.

results of cupping 3 days afterwards (see, Mom, I'm smiling! It's OK)


back results of cupping 3 days afterwards 

my friend Ciara

One of the trainings with Cain a few years ago. 
(I'm in the green skirt and Cain's in the white shirt in front of me.)

You can see I'm not convinced I can move my shoulder like that!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Good Fences

Our house, July 2008

**The essence of this essay is true. The spatial details within the house have been rearranged.

Our house had not caught fire as I’d feared as a girl after watching the Walton’s house burn on TV, and then watching my father place his lit cigarette on the edge of the windowsill so he could kiss me good night. The house had not fallen to disrepair, as others on the street had, like the burnt yellow split level where my best friend had lived, or the one across the street, still the same chartreuse it was in 1980 where the cute bad boy with the long hair had worked on his black Mustang late into the night. The front door to our house had been repainted the same chalky red it had been when we lived here. My father had wanted to paint the house himself in 1977 because all strong Southern men could paint – should paint – their own houses. But he couldn’t. Or at least didn’t. The eaves were too high, his polio withered leg too weak, the fingerprints from his most recent heart attack tracked in blue across his chest.

“We’ll hire someone,” my mother said, and we did, and the eaves were painted the chalky red color we had hoped would symbolize vitality, a quality we no longer felt we had.

My father watched the young painters, flecks of dried red paint in their light hair, from the den as the Sunday afternoon golf matches droned underneath his thoughts. My mother worked on the lesson for her Sunday school class on the Remington typewriter that had both a red and black ribbon option, but no correction tape. Ben Hogan held the leader board for the day, but my father was not watching, not listening. He was watching the men – the boys really – with their strong legs and their strong hearts paint the ceiling of his family’s home. He was, perhaps, tracing the blue path across his chest with the fingers of his right hand while his atrophied left foot hung in his specially designed shoe. He was watching his children, who, for the moment at least, were not fighting. They were in the backyard also watching the young men who were painting the house. He might have wondered if his daughters wished for a father who could paint houses, or throw a baseball, or run behind a bicycle. His daughters wondered what the were having for dinner, hoping for spaghetti, expecting cube steak and string beans cold from the can.
When I walked up the driveway again at forty years old, two young men were still repainting the eaves. This time different men and a different color, though the spackles of thirty-year-old chalky red paint still dotted the brick side stairs.
“Do you want to come in?” they asked, and I had almost forgotten the need for permission to enter. It was, after all, my house.

Inside, the golf match wasn’t on. Ben Hogan wasn’t winning. My father was not sitting, not thinking, but the walls were exploding through the neutral beige and Navajo white they’d been painted to ensure a quick sale. The walls pointed to the windowsill of my girlhood bedroom where I feared the impending house fire would begin, where I feared the monster that took my father away one night and brought back an aged man, a graying, frightened, subdued man. This monster, the same monster that ate the other half of the pair of red mittens that always make it to school but never home, lived under every bed skirt, behind every closet door, inside the pockets of every winter coat.

The floor plan has been opened up. A wall knocked down to make a great room, ceilings depopcorned and raised, fans added and appliances updated. My room, however, was significantly smaller than it used to be; the closet wouldn’t hold a fraction of my current wardrobe. But the dead fly was still etched into the paint on the window frame of my bedroom, wings splayed open like a prehistoric fossil. As a child, I would run my fingertip over the outline of its wings, imagine how it died, drowning in beige paint, slowly realizing it was trapped. No matter how hard it tried to move it would never be anywhere but on this windowsill in this bedroom.

Outside the window was the orange fence, still standing after almost thirty years. The woman, hands on blue-flowered hips, watched me. Her hair had grayed, but I would have known her anywhere.

“I know the story of that fence,” I said to the two men with young bodies and strong hearts who were fixing up our house to resell. “When we moved to Arizona, we sold our house to a black couple. When we told our neighbor, the next day they built the fence. They stopped talking to us.”

The young men, young in the south of 2008, not the south of 1980, or the south of 1940, stopped installing the kitchen sink.

“They saved my dad’s life, you know,” I continued, even though these young Southern men were surely demonstrating ancient Southern politeness. “Her husband performed CPR while the ambulance was on the way.”  

The woman hadn’t moved from her driveway.

“Looks like she’s alone now.”

“Her husband died a few years back,” said one of the young men.

This woman, older than my mother, was frail enough that I could push her to the ground while my young self shouted at her all the things she’d always wanted to:

    You betrayed us!
    You abandoned us!
    You gave me a New Testament for my birthday and then built this fence!
    I am glad you are alone! I am glad! I am glad!

But I didn’t say any of that. I have driven here in a red convertible rented car. I will drive away in less than an hour. I can no longer hear the golf match, the Remington’s keys, my friends playing kickball in the yard across the street, my father’s limp left foot tapping the floor.  She is standing still, wearing a blue flowered housecoat and pink slippers, and I am glad.

I press my fingers one more time against the fly’s immutable skeleton. “Well, it’s sure been a long time.”
The young men, boys really, with their strong legs and strong hearts, nod to me. The house is so small now, it seems impossible it once held us all – mommy, daddy, sisters, and monster. I have grown through it and around it, my own strong heart, strong legs inching into the eaves, making sure the chalky red paint, the orange fence, the woman in the blue flowered housecoat, the ancient fly, do not dissolve into the same places as Ben Hogan’s win, my father’s blue-black scar, and the girl I used to be.

This is the fence now. It was orange when we moved in 1981.

This is the side of the house where there are still spackles of red paint.

This is where the fly is embedded in the window sill.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Baryshnikov Meets James Dean

Patrick Swayze is dead and I am crying.

I don't have time to cry now. I have to get to work, read papers, go to a curriculum meeting. But I am instead in my office at home destroying the makeup I just put on.

 I was nineteen when Dirty Dancing came out in August, 1987. My father and I went to see it in late August, just a few weeks before he died. As far as I know, it was the last movie he saw in a theater. I've always equated the last song of the film, "The Time of My Life", with Dad's death. I like to imagine, though I have no idea, that if Dad could have, he would have gone out singing that song.

When Patrick Swayze leapt from the stage into the audience in the final dance number, I like to think I felt a little like young girls felt when they saw Elvis for the first time. Swayze's virility, his presence, his devotion to the moment of the music still makes me catch my breath. To move, not because the next dance step calls for it, but to move because your body responds in full force and without your conscious direction to the music, is one of the deepest sexual and life-affirming things to witness.

Dirty Dancing was perhaps not the most intellectual of movies. Not the most challenging of films. But if you were a young woman in 1987, I'll bet you remember watching that man move across the screen and wiggle something awake inside of you. I'll bet you remember his line, "Nobody puts Baby in the corner," and I'll bet you remember feeling something unexpected in your chest and in your spine when he looked Jennifer Grey straight on and with just a twitch of an index finger, made her shake.

Last week, I had to buy reading glasses. +1.50. The girl watching Patrick Swayze in 1987 couldn't imagine reading glasses. Couldn't imagine most of what her life has become, but most of all, couldn't imagine what it feels like to clearly no longer be the kid. Forty-one may be the new thirty-one -- whatever --  but perception and vitamins don't change the biology. I am stepping into a different space as I leave hippy clothes and peace signs and some of the openness of youth. I realize that there are things I will probably never do in this life. Some doors may open wider, but some doors do shut forever.

Friday is the 22nd anniversary of dad's death. Last night, Patrick Swayze died, and today I am crying. I am remembering that moment when it seemed, just like when Swayze leapt into the audience, that the future would always be huge, everlasting, ever expanding, and completely mine. 

Monday, August 24, 2009

Yes, Virginia, It'll Happen To You

Forty-one arrived earlier this month like a meal with too many beans. At first it was yummy and fabulous, and then later ...

I don't physically feel older, but let's just say I'm noticing some things that have probably been there for awhile. Case and point: the sagging breast.

Gents, feel free to stop reading.

Ladies? Here's my truth. I've never been one who was really jazzed about having a large chest. I'm always amazed women pay for such an inconvenience (shirts don't close, back pain, shoulder pain, chest pain, bras that have more steel in them than the Brooklyn bridge). I appreciate mine because without them I'd look like a pear, but since I never wanted children, their biological purpose never mattered to me. I wanted to check a box on the way into this world -- NO. Won't be needing breasts this time around. Thanks anyway. Want to be able to wear strapless things. Want to once, just once, go out in public without a bra without looking like I should have a can of Pabst in my hand and chewing tobacco between my lips.

But Something. Has. Happened.

My bras hurt. I can't wait to get out of them. I am burned by the straps, pricked by the closure. I thought I must have changed sizes, though I haven't had any weight fluctuations. A few weeks ago, I reached the point of almost taking my bra off in the middle of Cost Plus because it was driving me so insane. It had been a little over a year since my last bra fitting, so I thought I should give it another shot.

"These trying economic times" have taken away my Lane Bryant store from the mall. The only store in town where a woman with a chest larger than a 36C can enter and know she'll be among sisters. But it closed last year, and those of us who require bras be functional not decorative, are left proverbially flapping in the breeze. If I lived in a larger town, there'd be more options, but in Prescott, well, I'm left with the perpetual youth and size 2 that is Victoria's Secret.

The Victoria's Secret in Prescott is nothing like the Victoria's Secret in an urban area. Here, the mannequins are in cute PINK pajamas holding tiny stuffed dogs. Down in Phoenix, the mannequins are splayed open in the display window, red and black push up bra and thong advertising what they're selling. But even here, in a store about sleep not sex, a woman knows whether or not she belongs in Victoria's Secret. I do not. But I was at a crossroads. I'd have to venture into the girly-girl pink store and find a bra fitter.

Flashback to fifth grade. I'm the only girl who has to wear a bra. Not because I want to. Because I have to. I learn to cross my arms over my chest. I learn to slouch. I learn to wear shirts with necks up to my chin. I learn to be embarrassed of my own body.

Girly-girl pink. Fifth grade. And, lo and behold, a bra fitter who's in the fifth grade. Really, I'm sure she's at least eighteen. Well, seventeen. I'm sure she's at least an A cup. 34" around? Maybe. After she's had a cheeseburger at least. Or three.

"Ma'am?" ugh. "Do you need help?"

She's adorable. She's eager. The yellow measuring tape is longer than she is. She has the body type I've always wanted. She has no idea I want to squash her.

"Yes. My bras are driving me crazy. I wanted to get a bra fitting."

She whips into Bra Fitting Professional and whisks me off to the back of the store.

Ladies, I've got to tell you -- I want a bra fitting from a woman who has to actually wear a bra. I want a bra fitting from a woman ten times my size who knows how they pinch and hurt and squeeze and don't fit right and can tell me honestly which style is really going to work and which one is going to feel good for a week and then begin its slow torture. Which ones won't make the dreaded uniboob, and which ones won't create that boingy-boingy bounce that makes you feel like you should stuff dollar bills down your chest.

But this was not to be. The only other person working in the store was also very young. Very petite. If I ever own a bra store, I'm staffing it with women who wear 50F cup sizes. No one will be intimidated to walk in my bra store. But I digress.

When I was about ten, my grandmother and I went shopping. My grandmother is the only family member to also have a large chest. We were in the fitting room and I accidentally saw her without her shirt on. I will never forget. Never. I remember clutching my hands over my new breasts and begging them not to ever do that.

Age and gravity are the great equalizers.

The very young very small girl is efficient and sweet. "38DD." She smiles like she just gave me a cookie.

"Are you sure? That's the size I'm wearing and nothing fits."

"Ma'am." ugh. "You know that over, um, time, they move."

Yep. Just like all those beans I had for dinner.

You little girls best be gettin' out of my way.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

And One Day There Was Nothing Left

the center of the backyard patio

The clearing out began in my twenties with money. Credit card debt. A job that really didn't pay much at all. A shrieking loneliness that seemed to be filled only by the transactions in the stores, the exchanges with the clerks. It wasn't the objects I purchased that I craved. It was the conversations. Phoenix was so terribly lonely.

The clearing moved on in my thirties with grief work. Jungian analysis. Movement work. Yoga. Writing. Healing. Returning to stuffed pain and yanking it free, sometimes with tears, sometimes with laughter. Learning to be in relationships again -- my friend Carol Anne, my friend Gus. Letting people into my house again after swearing that following the abusive relationship I had in college, I would never ever ever (not never, not no how, not never) let anyone into my space again. My space would be safe.

Before I moved to Prescott, Gus helped me clean out my dark hidden room. He had to kick the door down to get into it. I'm never terribly subtle in my work. We moved out boxes and boxes and boxes. I recarpeted the house. Tiled the kitchen floor. And then moved.

Then, the body called. Excessive weight. Imbalanced food. Sticky painful shoulder that made me feel sixty five, not thirty five. High blood pressure. Bleeding gums. Yoga moved in then, and over years, stretched me. Made space. Breath moved in. Friends in Prescott: Carolina, Cain, Revital, Grace -- helped me feel part of a community. Helped me find openings where I thought were only fences. Keith came then, and from the first conversation we had in his old truck in the parking lot of Outback, I knew he was my partner.

Then, the joints called, which sent me back into the body, learning qi gong, joint opening, abdominal massage, kettle bell training, and shaking. The more I shook, the more the fire stoked in my belly. The more the fire stoked, the more the earth, which is my dosha, my constitution, began to crumble and move. The more the earth moved ... well, you know that song.

Clearing out the body made room for the writing. There were books. There were teaching opportunities at amazing places in the country. There was a window to a world I didn't think I could touch.

The body called again, and this time the spiritual journey was cleaning the house. And finally, the outdoor landscaping was finished yesterday on my 41st birthday. I've never cultivated an outdoor space. I've been sitting in the patio with my tea and watching the birds and yellow jackets and butterflies come to the plants. I look through the trimmed alligator juniper to see not just the moon, but the birds making a nest in the branches. I talked to the flowers. Touched the velvet leaves. Bought a hose attachment that would let me water lightly, not in my usual forceful way. Wrote down the names of the plants -- the ones that would come back next year and the ones that wouldn't. Cain chiseled a hole in the fence so the water would drain and not stagnate in the patio. We dug a hole and put in river rock along the wall and out into the common area so the water had a place to flow. The whole house began to move.

I am tired. And even though I just got back from New York and could attribute the fatigue to the trip, I know that's not what it is. I am tired from carrying everything and holding everything for so long. I am tired in that great way you are when you finish a workout. The good exhaustion that says, yes, you worked hard and now, my sweet, it is time to rest. The good exhaustion that leaves you loose and flexible, not tense and rigid.

I'm a little unsteady without all the weight, but that's OK. My house can hold me. My earth can hold me. My friends can hold me. My writing can hold me. And without the heaviness, I will find ever higher places to fly as my heart remains rooted with those I love, my center grounded, my unsteadiness as perfect as wind.

back patio before the work

view of the backyard patio now

front yard before the work

front yard now

rock formation for rain drainage

Each day, let something go.

Monday, July 13, 2009

I Can Win A Pre-Paid Cremation!

Historic cemetery in Davidson County, North Carolina

Somehow, in the Great Junk Mail Computer, which is so obviously a PC and not a Mac, I have become switched with my father. It happened when I moved to Prescott. I began receiving targeted junk mail about social security, AARP, Medicare Plans A,B,C,D and huh?, life insurance offers with the cute Snoopy on the front, invitations to refinance so I could live out my golden years in luxury, and notifications of the senior citizens' early bird buffets (which, in Prescott, are bountiful). I finally figured out what had happened when I received something from AARP preprinted with my name and birthday -- Laraine A. Herring. 01/20/41.

Nope. That was my dad's birthday. And, incidentally Great Junk Mail Computer, he's been dead 22 years. I know. Windows Vista sucks, doesn't it?

Today I received an envelope with a big blue banner on the front: Win a Pre-Paid Cremation! I had to open it. It's not every day a 40 year old woman gets a chance for something that spectacular. And it's only Monday. What could my Pre-Paid Cremation prize entail? Fireworks? Tony Orlando singing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree"? Ice sculptures or a personal eulogy from Clinton Kelly telling the world how fabulously I put outfits together? Alas. None of this could be mine.

The personalized letter contained seven punctuation and spelling errors. I would not entrust my mortal remains to a company that misuses an apostrophe and believes that there is such a thing as closure in the grieving process (facilitated, of course, by pre-buying a cremation plan.) A girl has to take a stand. Furthermore, is this the kind of mail I can look forward to as I age? Makes those viagra junk mails look better. If I complete the reply slip, I can even be entered in a monthly drawing! Oh my. I had no idea life was going to get this good.

I believe in the right to die. I don't want to hang on for months or years on life support. I believe in the right to die on one's own terms, and I believe each person has both the right and responsibility to ensure there are provisions for the disposal of his or her body in a way that feels comfortable. I also understand that this company has a right to sell its product. It's the Ed McMahon You Might Already Be A Winner! tone of the letter that got to me. That, and, for me, the idea of cremation in the first place.

I love the earth, and I want to go back to it. I don't want to be cremated. I don't want to be scattered. I don't want to be inhaled by someone else. I want to be under a tree -- a big one like the ones I can't find here in Arizona. One with roots that go clear to hell and branches that go straight to heaven. Preferably with moss and birds that are red and yellow and orange and green. And maybe a rabbit. Definitely a squirrel. And lightning bugs. Hopefully a cat or two.

Cremation, like beer, is for other people. Not me. Even if it's free. Even if they pay me. I go back to mushy, muddy, Southern earth. How else am I going to hang out in the branches and haunt everybody?

a handful of earth

cries aloud

i used to be hair or

i used to be bones

and just at the moment

when you are all confused

leaps forth a voice

hold me close

i'm love and

i'm always yours

- Jalaluddin Rumi, translated by Nader Khalili

Cat guarding Chopin's grave in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

Monday, June 29, 2009

Domestic Vision Quest

A big PSHAW to those of you who think you need the great outdoors and bright sun and bugs and no indoor plumbing or showers to have a vision quest. Pshaw. You can do it in your very own home! All the elements are there, and you can go to the bathroom indoors and take a shower whenever you get too icki-fied.

Here's how it starts. You go to see your teacher and friend (you remember the one -- the one who somehow convinced you to eat quinoa and barley and swing a 27 pound iron kettle bell around your house) to talk about bizarre happenings in your body. Turns out, all you needed was to get more white fish to balance out the orange fish in your living room. :-)

Seriously, your teacher comes over to your house and politely doesn't mention the pile of shoes in the living room (there was nowhere else for them to go!). He spends several hours in deep contemplation at the state of your house. You suddenly see your house as someone else might (as opposed to the "well, it was so much WORSE when you lived in Phoenix" lens.) You realize that indeed your house is choking, and that's really a shame because you love your house, and it probably doesn't know how much you love it since, well, you've been strangling it.

He tells you that you've lost 30% of your body mass in the past two years. Your house needs to lose at least that much. He tells you to imagine that the house is shaking. What would it get rid of? He tells you to look at each space in the house (yes, corners, drawers, and that Dark Place Where No One Knows What Lives There) and ask it if it can breathe. Take out what needs to go for that space to breathe. He leaves you with incense and a promise that he and his wife will come back and help you create a space outside the house as well. (You are She Who Kills All Things Green and know you can't manage that part alone).

You, being you, having remained stuck, suddenly erupt with a fire in the belly and spew out everything that's clogging the pathways. You work for 4-1/2 days straight. You haul car load after car load off to the dump or Goodwill or the battered women's shelter. You make piles of things for friends. You give things to Keith's children. You burn burn burn for three hours in your backyard chiminea journals from high school and college. You burn your therapy notes. Your therapy art work. Your notes and letters and pictures from things that don't matter. You find bank statements from banks that don't exist (and didn't exist long before this year of The Dead Bank). You find mortgage papers from a house you actually never owned (this one's a mystery still).

You touch every book. Every article of clothing. You try on every garment you own. If it doesn't fit, it goes in the bag. If it's too big it goes away (you're not going to be that size again). If it's too small, it goes away (you were actually never that size). You sort your jewelry by color and pass on what others might like. You pare down your scarf collection from oh, say, a hundred, to thirty.

Time loses meaning. You don't know if it's Friday or Sunday. You eat when you're hungry. You take a shower when the dirt and old energy is too much to keep holding. You become loopy from lack of sleep and your internal censor vanishes as you babble. You wonder who will emerge from this journey.

You hit the proverbial wall on Saturday when you enter your office. This room has (had) things in boxes you just carried from apartment to apartment in Phoenix, to your house in Phoenix, and then to your house in Prescott without opening them. You know (or you think you know) what's in them. You open them and you find something different from what you expected. You thought you'd find your younger self and that you'd want to keep her. Instead, you found the baggage of your younger self, and you realize you don't need that. Your younger self is not in the boxes. She is inside you, and she whispers, "Yeah, it's been 25 years. It's done." And you know it's done, and though you cry, you also dance. You give thanks.

You find pictures of yourself looking like you never remembered you looked. You find transcripts and letters of recommendation and handouts from every class you ever taught before everything went electronic. You find expired medications and cosmetics.

Empty space used to scare you before you felt what space felt like in your body. An empty wall used to feel like fingers scratching on a chalkboard. This is not true anymore. You now know every single thing that's in your house. Down to the silverware and socks.

You call your teacher and tell him to bring it on. There's room for the next thing.

(Side Note on Soundtracks: I chose a station I created called "I Will Survive". It played disco hits from the 70s and 80s. The thump thump and familiarity of the songs helped keep me moving. Do NOT choose a soundtrack of, say, Leonard Cohen. You'll end up drinking yourself to death and pushing everything back in the closet.)

Some sample pictures:

The living room.

The corner of the living room towards the kitchen.

The corner of the living room going up the stairs.

The bedroom closet!!

My desk with my fabulous Mac.

The corner of my office.

And finally, the bottle of wine Keith and I will share tonight at the Thai House.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Natural Talent

It happens every semester. The student creeps up to you in the very last breath of your office hour. Or she waits until the rest of the class has gathered up their backpacks and water bottles. Sometimes he's shy. Sometimes she's bold. Sometimes he poses it as a challenge. Sometimes more of a prayer.

"Do I have any talent?"

For a writing teacher, this question is the equivalent of being asked to reveal state secrets to the Taliban. And, fortunately, I've honed my Special Forces resistance skills over the years to where I can keep a poker face and provide the only answer that is ethical. "I can't answer that."

The reason the poker face is needed is because I'm still a human being. The students I work with present a wide range of abilities. I have personal tastes that I try to keep out of the classroom, but are still a part of how I see literature.

I'm convinced people ask the question because they want to be validated. My job is not to validate. My job is to help my students grow as writers. Think about it. The last time you asked someone if your butt looked fat in those jeans, did you really want them to say "actually, yes it does." Likely not.

I am not the Talent Police, nor am I the Talent Judge. I don't think anyone can be. Relax, though. Talent isn't the crystal ball of writing. Perseverance, a commitment to learning the craft, writing writing writing writing writing, studying grammar, reading reading reading reading reading -- these things can make a writer successful. I can't even tell you with certainty whether or not a piece can be published. So much of publishing is changing and out of our control that we can't possibly say with definitive authority -- no, it'll never make it. Or, yes! It's a bestseller. No one knows these things. Please don't ask us. Ask questions such as, "Who can I read more of to learn more about plot?" or "What are some of the different ways I could have approached that character conflict?" or "Where do you think the work fell into cliche?" Ask concrete developmental questions about your work. We can answer those. The work will improve. And the rest will go where it will go.

I think of talent as the magic bean. All of us got a handful of magic beans, but none of us got the same assortment of magic beans. All of these magic beans were not programmed to sprout at the same time. Sometimes they lie dormant until the circumstances arise for them to bloom. Sometimes they are nurtured from early childhood. Some people publish a book in their early twenties. Others not until their eighties. Everyone didn't get the same set of circumstances, so talent cannot be measured in an Excel spreadsheet. Talent can't be ranked, quantified, or implanted.

I also know that since all people are not given equal gifts that all people cannot accomplish the exact same things. No matter how much I want to be a blues singer, it just ain't happening in this life. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy music and singing, but it means the open mic or karaoke night is as far as I'm going to get with my musical ability.

Some people do have more writing talent than others. (Dare I say it? It's like porn -- you can't define it but you know it when you see it.) If you're in my class, I'll never ever tell you whether I think you're talented enough because I only see part of the picture. I can't know enough to tell you what you want (or don't want) to hear. I don't know how badly you want it. I will tell you if individual sentences, or stories, or poems sing. I will tell you how to make a piece stronger.

But only you know when the door of your reality opens and you realize that you can enjoy singing (or writing, or dancing, or swimming) your entire life, but you'll never be a professional. Remember the joy comes in the value of the relationship you have with your art form. Don't lose sight of that joy comparing yourself to the writing of others.

Do your own writing. Study. Read. Read. Read. Write. Read. Push yourself. Don't get complacent (oh, I already know how to write dialogue) -- I'll bet there's something new you could learn. There's something new all of us can learn. Be a constant student whether you're in class or not. Be in service to your art. Listen to it. Walk with it. That's the relationship that will get you wherever you and your writing are supposed to end up in this crazy world.

But talent? Don't worry about it. Your job is to use the magic beans you've been given to the best of your ability. Don't waste them comparing your beans to everyone else's beans. Your commitment is to your growth with your art. Nothing more and nothing less is required of you.

You may never be able to string together clauses like Faulkner, but that's OK. We've had one Faulkner. What is it that you can do?